Robert Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green, is not a child molester.
When BBC2's Newsnight reported on a child abuse scandal, it incorrectly stated that a "a prominent Thatcher-era Tory figure" had engaged in child abuse. This report, premised on mistaken identity, was widely understood to refer to Lord McAlpine, and intended to refer to him.
It is hard to imagine a more damaging false accusation than one of child abuse. The BBC has apologized and paid Lord McAlpine; if (as the stories linked above suggest) it was reckless in its reporting, that's a just result.
But Lord McAlpine is not satisfied with pursuing the networks that made the false report. He's also pursuing citizens who commented on the news report.
Mr. McAlpine did not stop with the mainstream media. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the politician told The Guardian newspaper that his lawyers had identified 20 “high-profile tweeters” from whom they were seeking libel damages. Among them were a comedian, Alan Davies; Sally Bercow, the wife of John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons; and George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist.
. . .
In addition to the prominent figures, Mr. McAlpine is reportedly pursuing action against thousands of other Twitter users, including people who had merely repeated to their own followers comments made by others.
Apparently Lord McAlpine is contemplating pursuing speech that only by implication repeated any defamatory statements by the media:
On 4 November Bercow tweeted to her 56,000 followers: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*".
She followed this up with the tweet: "Final on McAlpine: am VERY sorry for inadvertently fanning flames. But I tweet as me, forgetting that to some of u I am Mrs bloody Speaker." She has since deleted her Twitter account.
At the time the Newsnight allegations were being widely discussed on Twitter Monbiot tweeted: "I looked up Lord McAlpine on t'internet. It says the strangest things." Monbiot later apologised on his blog.
Lord McAlpine's attorneys at RMPI have set up a sort of mass-production system to address potential defendants, encouraging them to come forward, apologize, pay money to charity, and pay “a small administrative charge to cover the costs of dealing with this matter”. RMPI has issued a letter — helpfully available on its web site — which kindly assures us that it is not their intention to "create any hardship," but attaching a form confession and apology for Twitter users to fill out. They are careful to explain that this method is only "confirmed" for Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers, which Lord McAlpine apparently views as a demarcation of Twitter prominence. (By that measure, Popehat is prominent by an order of magnitude, though vastly less prominent than, say, @DrunkHulk.) "Prominent" Twitter users may be subjected to special treatment.
Lord McAlpine is also apparently seeking criminal charges against some Twitter users:
"We have met with senior officers from Scotland Yard," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme. "There are a hard core of people retweeting, acting maliciously, which is illegal. And no doubt in due course the police will investigate that or not, that is up to them, not us."
No doubt many Twitter users will be intimidated into completing Lord McAlpine's and RMPI's self-criticism forms. England's stupendously awful libel laws give Twitter users every reason to fear that Lord McAlpine can pursue them and ruin them, whatever the justice of the matter.
And the matter is unjust. Lord McAlpine was wronged by the BBC's incompetent (and perhaps even deliberately malicious) reporting. But in pursuing Twitter users who merely linked or commented upon news reported by the BBC, Lord McAlpine is acting like a thug, and RMPI like his lowlife bully-boys. What Lord McAlpine is pursuing here — aided by a broken libel law — is the dream of every entitled and narcissistic public figure: a world in which citizens cannot safely repeat, or comment upon, unflattering reports about them in the media. That's a goal well beyond what the regrettably compliant legal system has already given them.
Lord McAlpine and RMPI know that Twitter users cannot possibly conduct research themselves on the facts underlying stories in the newspapers or on the networks. By purporting to impose a duty of independent verification of such stories, they hope that you, and I, and everyone else who sees a story about someone like him will be chilled and deterred from linking it on Twitter, or retweeting a comment about it, or even making a vague and sly reference to it. They hope to establish a system in which the risks of comment on any negative story on any public figure are so daunting that people like Lord McAlpine are effectively protected from insult or rebuke, like the luminaries of some pre-modern kingdom or authoritarian hell-hole.
Lord McAlpine is not a child molester. It was reckless of the BBC to report, by implication, otherwise. But Lord McAlpine has now shown what he is: an entitled thug.